Review: For TheatreWorks Florida's Glorious SWEENEY TODD the Devil is in the Overlooked Details

By: Sep. 18, 2014

Amongst the vast majority of musical theatre devotees, there is little debate that Stephen Sondheim is the greatest writer that the artform has ever known. So, as I sat watching TheatreWorks Florida's soaring Opening Night performance of his darkest masterpiece, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, I found my mind consistently going over his three principles of lyric writing: 1) "Content dictates form." 2) "Less is more." 3) "God is in the details."

Now, before I go much further, I want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this production, especially the phenomenal voices and inventive staging, and this show is a must see for any local lover of Sondheim's work. I doubt that you will find a better sounding group of actors on an Orlando stage any time soon. Music Director David Foust clearly did incredible work on this production.

Playing at the gorgeous Garden Theatre in Winter Garden through October 5th, it would be a mistake to miss this thoroughly entertaining, if not uneven, show. However, returning to my thoughts as I took in the production, I couldn't help but be disappointed that the Master's three essentials didn't quite seem to permeate some of the more important aspect of this most gruesome of musicals.

Content Dictates Form

The story of Sweeney Todd, in this iteration by Hugh Wheeler, is one of revenge, love, insanity, and bloodlust. While the titular barber is the most obvious example of these traits, nearly every principal character in the musical embodies at least one of these qualities. However, very rarely did I see these characteristics represented in the actors' performances.

It bears repeating that the entire cast was exceptionally well-voiced. From leads to ensemble, notwithstanding occasional harmonic blending issues, there was only one major example of misintonation; unfortunately it was in the title character's first song. Rather than sing the leitmotif melody that we would become familiar with throughout the show; while explaining his disgust to be back in his hometown, Nick Kroger's Sweeney screamed his anger at the London filth, which is unfortunate, because his rich, powerful baritone was exceptionally strong the rest of the show.

T hat moment became a microcosm of the night for me. Rather than truly internalizing the pain of being falsely accused of a crime in order for an immoral judge to attempt to seduce his wife, more times than not, Kroger instead indicated that frustration simply through screaming.

Though Sweeney's frustration doesn't fully manifest into madness until he learns that his wife, Lucy, was raped and subsequently poisoned herself; given the context of the show, there should already be a glint of insanity in Sweeney's "odd eyes." Otherwise, his murderous, cannibalistic turn seems like an unearned, unbelievable leap. For a man who "heard music that nobody heard," Kroger's Sweeney seemed like a fairly normal individual, albeit a fairly normal, murderous individual. The show's dark, brooding content just didn't seem to fully translate to the form it took on stage.

I thought similar things for the villainous Judge Turpin (Alexander Mrazek) and his accomplice Beadle Bamford (Nathan Jessee); though we know they are corrupt, lecherous rapists, we don't see much of that. If their evil sides had been more on display, the stakes for Sweeney's revenge would have been much higher. One choice that I am confident would have remedied this shortcoming is if the creative team had elected to retain the judge's self-flagellation scene. Though it can be incredibly disturbing, this optional scene provides untold amounts of insight into the character's damaged psyche.

While this talented cast more than pulled off the content of the musical's score, I didn't feel that their performances fully realized the emotional and psychological depth of its characters; in this regard, I was left longing for the form to better represent the content.

Less is More

For me, the highlight of the show was Candy Heller's Mrs. Lovett. As with the rest of the cast, Heller was more than capable of handling Sondheim's unique vocal requirements, but her performance was more than just notes and intonation. While I do wish that she and Kroger's portrayals had been far darker, Heller was exceptionally funny throughout. There is a fine line to walk while making jokes about murder and cannibalism, and Heller struts back and forth across that line with confidence. While many of her line readings drew laughs, what made me appreciate the comedy in the character (as I never had before), were the moments when Heller trusted the material, and didn't try to push too hard. Rather than mugging to the audience, which is easy to do in the part, she instead gave a much more effective raise of the eyebrow. While the role requires its actress to be over-the-top most of the time, Heller's performance was both appropriately bawdy and subtle. In her case, less was most certainly more.

One of the other highlights of the show was the inventive and intricate staging designed by Artistic Director and Choreographer Scott A. Cook. The choreography as Heller sang "Poor Thing" was both theatrical and thrilling. The masquerade masks and stilted dancing gave way to an artistic, yet disturbing representation of Lucy's rape at the hands of Judge Turpin.

I only wish that the evocative nature of this choreography had been carried forth into all aspects of the show. While we saw elements of it in other scenes, during the "Wigmaker Sequence" for example, there was far too much standing around and singing for a show whose music is so vibrant and full of movement. In this case, I did actually want more.

The other impressive aspect of Cook's musical staging was in the attempts to make the most of the somewhat tight confines of the Garden Theatre. By and large, coupled with set design by James F. Beck, they were extremely successful. By utilizing two very cool, if not completely safe, rolling sets of escape stairs to navigate the two-story set, the cast was able to simulate movement around the narrow streets of London, and to differentiate settings.

As the scenes changed, so did the location and orientation of the stairs, however, there seemed to be no consistent rhyme or reason to their movements. A location represented by one setup at one moment in the play might look completely different the next time we visited that same place; in fact, there were times when the arrangement of the stairs changed, despite the characters remaining in one locale. So, while I appreciated the ingenuity of the staging, it seemed to be more style for style's sake than a means to serve the story. So, in this case, I think that less would have been more.

God is in the Details

The knock on musical theatre is generally that, due to the constraints created by including 15 songs in a two-and-a-half hour show, there isn't much time for detailed character development. Ironically, the opposite has been leveled as a criticism at Sondheim. Many consider his works so dense and clever that it is difficult to appreciate all of their detail on first listen.

Despite the fact that I admittedly knew nearly every word going in, I found the diction and enunciation in every song to greatly improve my understanding of the show. However, that focus on clarity did result in a few songs being slowed down considerably from their normal tempos. That fact notwithstanding, the production greatly benefitted from this attention to detail.

That focus on textual details, however, did not carry over to many of the cast members. As the show's young lovers, Johanna (Jennica McCleary) and Anthony (Robb Ross) make a charming pair. They both sing their roles very well, and gave completely acceptable performances, but like many instances in the show, I was left wanting more. More emotion, more connection, more details.

We meet Johanna, a young woman who has been locked away from society for most of her life, as she questions a caged bird as to how it is able to sing, despite not being able to fly free. This moment should be an empathetic one for the audience to understand the damage that the Judge has done to Johanna. Instead, "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" was made into a light-hearted, Cinderella-like animal-human exchange. The song, though musically light and airy, didn't seem to have its appropriate sense of sadness, thus robbing it of its ironic impact. I am confident that the song, and the show as a whole, would have greatly benefitted from more attention to the book and lyrical details.

The show's gorgeous vocals, and creative staging, but lack of emotional grit and general craziness, continually brought a phrase to mind as I watched and thought about the show, "The 'Disneyfication' of SWEENEY TODD." While this is not meant as an insult to neither Disney, nor this production, for me, a work as complex and nuanced as SWEENEY TODD would have benefitted from a more detailed, honest concentration on the story and the text than what we get here.

Similar to the rest of the cast, Nick Rishel and Benjamin Ludwig sounded phenomenal as Tobey and Pirelli respectively, but didn't inspire any emotions in me. However, the show's small orchestra, under Foust's direction was incredible. With just five members, they created a full, rich sound that made me think it came from a group four times the size. Likewise, Nicholas Hartman's costumes were spectacular.

Though I had certain reservations about the execution of the show, having seen multiple large-scale musicals in Orlando over the past two weeks, including Orlando Shakespeare's LES MISERABLES (read Kim Moy's review here), I can say without a doubt, that TheatreWorks Florida's production of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is the most entertaining and professional of the bunch. So, get your tickets to see the show before October 5th at Winter Garden's Garden Theatre by visiting their website or calling (407) 877-GRDN (4736).

Did you take a trip to Fleet Street? Did you agree with me that the production could have used more emotional grit, or do you think I am simply nit-picking admittedly impressive performances? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. Also, make sure to connect with us via the new BroadwayWorld Orlando Twitter and Facebook pages below.

Photo Credit:
1) Candy Heller and Cast | Michael Fleming
2) Nick Kroger and Candy Heller | Michael Fleming
3) Nick Kroger and Candy Heller | Michael Fleming
4) Ensemble | Michael Fleming